Pat Valaika wouldn’t be a name fans would correlate with everyday Oriole. But, in 2020, Valaika appeared in 52 of 60 games after coming in on a minor league contract.
Valaika finished fourth on the team with eight home runs and had the fifth-highest OPS, .791. However, the 28-year-old Valaika knows he’s not assured of a job for 2021.
Last season, Valaika started games at five positions—each of the infield spots and left field. Valaika and Stevie Wilkerson, who missed last season because of a fractured finger, are considered true utility men. Wilkerson, who also has played the infield and outfield, even recorded the first save by a position player in 2019.
Wilkerson is at spring training on a minor league contract. Valaika, who was eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, signed a split contract with the Orioles that pays him $875,000 if he’s in the majors and $300,000 if he’s in the minors.
Valaika who hit .277, wasn’t sure if the Orioles would offer him a contract. They parted ways with second baseman Hanser Alberto, who played 54 games, and first baseman/designated Renato Núñez, who played 52.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go, honestly,” Valaika said. “It came down to the very last minute. I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go, and yet it worked out that I came back here.
“I’m excited about that. I’m excited about this team, just ready to get going.”
The Orioles have a starting infield of Trey Mancini at first, Yolmer Sánchez at second, Freddy Galvis at shortstop, and Ruiz at third.
“I’ve never been told one way or the other, starting or utility,” Valaika said. “So, my mindset coming in is just prepare to play every day. That’s what my mindset has always been, and it gets me ready to be thrown into various situations. In my mind, I’m trying to be a starter, but I only can control what I can control.
“Those decisions aren’t up to me, so I’m just going to continue … getting my work in and focusing on the things that I know that I can control.”
Valaika started 15 games at shortstop in 2020 because of injuries to José Iglesias. He started eight times at first after Mancini missed the season because of colon cancer surgery.
“I remember early on when I got here last year, [manager Brandon] Hyde told me that I was going to play a lot, and I was going to play a lot of positions,” Valaika said. “He told me that from the beginning, and I think just the way I performed in those situations earned me more opportunities.
“Just looking forward to continuing from last year and building on that, and getting better.”
Valaika came to the Orioles on waivers from Colorado in October 2019. He played with the Rockies from 2016-2019, The Orioles took him off the 40-man roster in January 2020 when he was claimed by Arizona. Two weeks later, he was clamed again by the Orioles. He was later removed from the roster again but made the team on a minor league deal.
There are other utility candidates on the 40-man roster. Ramón Urias plays second, third and short. Jahmai Jones is a second baseman who was a corner outfielder until 2018. Rylan Bannon plays third and second, but hasn’t played shortstop.
“I came up through college, high school and even the minor leagues being a shortstop,” Valaika said. “I think I have a lot of innings under my belt there, but the last few years I’ve been more second base, third base, first base.
“In the majors and Triple-A, that’s been a little more of my role. I didn’t play as much shortstop as I used to … I don’t know what the defensive metrics and all that says about each position. I feel equally comfortable at each position. It’s more getting reps and getting comfortable because each position is so unique.
“There’s different nuances to each one. It’s not as easy as changing your gloves. You’ve got different angles, different ways to move your feet for different balls at different positions. There’s a lot that goes into it, but it’s fun, I don’t get the luxury of taking the same ground ball at the same position every day. I have to move around. That’s fun for me.”
The most challenging position for Valaika is third base.
“Third base is the most unlike the others,” he said. “That’s more of a position where you have to knock the ball down sometimes and just throw to first.
“The ball is hit pretty hard over there. It’s … less reliant on your feet than the other positions. Shortstop, second base, you’ve got to be pretty athletic moving your feet. Third base is a little different in the sense of the different balls you get hit there. First base is a little like third, but you’ve just got to catch the ball over there.”